Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Kid Koala

[This piece first appeared in The Times in late 1999, I'm reckoning... Though I could be wrong. Kid Koala is a lovely chap, and his live performances are astounding...]

A seedy bar in Everytown, America. A somewhat inebriated fella weaves over to a woman drinking by herself.

"What's a beautiful woman like you doing in a place like this?"

"Beat it, jerk!"

"Now, don't sugar coat it," he slimes, "Just what is it you're trying to say?"

"Oh, grow up!"

"You're falling in love with me!" he slurs.

"I've no time for this nonsense," she yells, as a needle scratches across the record and brings this little vignette to a close. This wasn't a scene out of film noir, but 'Barhopper', a track from 24-year old Canadian turntablist Kid Koala's remarkable debut LP, Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. A blizzard of wonky hip-hop and peculiar little narratives stitched together with the maverick humour of a post-Public Enemy George Clinton, the album is the avant-scratch negative of Fatboy Slim's beery big beat.

We are talking inside the soundproofed studio of sound-collagist legends Coldcut, within the artfully cluttered offices of their Ninjatune label, which is releasing Koala's LP. The room is icy cold, the elfin Koala (born Eric Yick-Kung in Vancouver, now resident of Montreal) vigorously rubbing his hands to stay warm. With his unblemished, unlined face, boundless enthusiasm, and infectious if peculiar giggle, Eric looks more like a cherubic/mischievous schoolkid than some venerated turntablist.

"Back in 1988, when I was in High School, I heard some records that totally changed my life," he remembers. "Coldcut's 'What's That Noise' , De La Soul's '3 Feet High And Rising', and Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back'. When I heard those records I thought, 'Woah! I have never, ever heard anything like that! How did they make those noises?'"

With professional DJ equipment something of a rarity in late-80s Vancouver, Koala's first experiments were somewhat lo-tech. He would scratch freebie flexidisks on his sister's beat-up Hi-Fi, using the wax-paper a local fast-food joint wrapped their hamburgers in as a slipmat. "I learnt all my scratch techniques, all my chops and baby cuts, off that stereo," he laughs.

An after-school paper delivery job got Eric the cash to finally buy his own system, and he eventually moved to Montreal, a small city with a thriving, enthusiastic scene. It was there that he won the 1995 Montreal DMC turntablist finals (the only such event Kid Koala has ever entered - he's not interested in competing). As Eric pieced together his first mixtapes, he began to meet kindred spirits across the world, young DJs similarly obsessed, with similarly unique approaches to their art. "We all hang out, prank call each other," he giggles. "Whenever anyone's in town they come over, scratch around, play each other new stuff... That's what I love about fellow turntablists, we're all into playing about with records, we all have this instant connection. Any country I go to, we don't even have to speak the same language, we can trade tapes and just instantly connect, because we all spend so much time in isolation, heheheh. When we meet someone else with the same obsessiveness, its like, 'I know you!'"

The track 'Nerdball' on the album features a cut-up voice, saying "We're nothing but the nerds they say we are". A wry comment on the stereotypical DJ, perhaps?

"We are nerds in a way," reasons the soft-spoken, gently charismatic DJ. "I was never any good at basketball or anything, my parents forced me to take piano lessons, so I guess it was almost inevitable. We're all quite fanatical, we've all got our own little quirks. There's DJ Shadow's millions of records; Cut Chemist, with his crazy 7" collection; A-Track in his basement, no sunlight, inventing some crazy scratch that'd take me three years to learn; there's me and my notebooks..."

Kid Koala's notebooks are legendary, equal parts catalogue and sketchbook (Koala draws comic strips to relax; Carpel Tunnel Syndrome comes complete with an accompanying, Koala-drawn comic book). Numbering eight volumes and counting, Koala's notebooks enable him to reference and cross-reference any interesting noises or samples he can lift off the record at a later date. "I buy lots of records on the road," he explains, "Play them on my portable record player, and note anything worth using. That's how we pieced together 'Barhopper', went into the studio with a list of men's come-ons, and a list of women's retorts, and matched them together. It was a riot putting it together!"

The inspiration for this cornerstone track came from shows Koala has played in such seedy dives, with his side-project band, Bullfrog (indeed, Bullfrog recorded music featured on Carpel Tunnel Syndrome). "The crowd isn't necessarily there for the music, heheheheh. I've had no actual experience of barhopping myself, but I am around that meat-market scene a lot, perhaps too much. It really is quite entertaining for me to watch, some of those guys realy are quite, um, goal-orientated... Tongues hanging out, all that..."

And what is Koala's goal, exactly? "I like nothing better than to take a record with some chickens on it," he admits, "And speed it up and make 'em go all operatic, or slow it down and make it sound like they're about to explode, heheheheh!"

Carpel Tunnel Syndrome's release brings Koala's career full circle, being his first release on Coldcut's Ninjatune label. "Kid Koala is a true entertainer," says Coldcut's Matt Black, who signed Koala after hearing one of the mixtapes Eric would piece together and sell to record shops; tapes which are now like gold dust on the hip-hop scene. "Oldcut (sic) can happily retire knowing that the torch has been passed to a new generation of musical hooligans."

Eric, for one, is grateful. "Those guys, they had a MAJOR influence on my life," he marvels, fingering a vinyl copy of Coldcut's 'Beats And Pieces' nailed to the studio wall. "If it weren't for them, I might be working in a bank now." He screws up his face in mock-disgust (like any slacker/achiever hybrid might). "Ugh!"

(c) Stevie Chick 1999

1 comment:

shinanos said...

Ah, I've ever seen his face on music magazines, but forgot the name. Maybe rock?! ...Great :)
Times, is interesting to read. Sometimes I browse it at bookshop!